I have a new favorite book, 小さな男＊静かな声 (Small Man, Quiet Voice) by吉田篤弘 (Atsuhiro Yoshida). Luckily, it took me a long time to read, and not just because it was almost 500 pages long. As Kiyoshi Shigematsu (重松清) writes in the afterword, “I remember very clearly that as I was reading, I’d often find myself nodding without even being aware of it, or snickering, or pulling back from the story and falling deep into thought.” And that’s exactly how it was for me, too.
The book can be read as a long self-introduction by the two main characters, full of detail. The atmosphere of their quiet lives, the very feel of their modest habits and beliefs, are all depicted here in shorter stories—the kind that you think about as you fall asleep. The book is divided into 20 sections, ten for the “Small Man” and ten for the “Quiet Voice”. These sections start in first person, and then switch to third person, which was a little confusing at first, but becomes rewarding as you realize you are being given a view of the main characters from two perspectives.
We never find out the Small Man’s real name, but this seems right since so much of his personality seems defined by his size, for better or worse. He describes a product he bought called a “secret seat booster,” primarily intended for use in movie theaters, that promised to raise your seated height by 20 centimeters. The difficulty is in putting it on, as it is almost impossible to put on in the cramped and dark seats of a movie theater. But if he put it on before leaving the house, his backside protruded to such an extent that he attracted stares in the street. Needless to say, he only used it twice.
In another interlude, the Small Man is late for his book club, and bounds up the stairs of the train station, feeling like a light and graceful flamenco dancer. He takes such pleasure in this sensation that, far from feeling that he is a bit ridiculous, I wished that I could dance up the stairs too.
The Small Man works in the bedding department of a department store, and in his free time, he works on an encyclopedia, studying the origins of hammocks and trolleys, for example. Much is made of the way the character for 100 (百) is part of the words for both department store (百貨店) and encyclopedia (百科辞典)—this kind of word play is one of the pleasures of this book. At one time, 百 signified “everything,” so by definition a department store sold everything under the sun, while encyclopedias were intended to “encompass everything in the world to create the perfect book”. This makes it singularly appropriate that he works in a department store and writes an encyclopedia.
His life is made up of small pleasures that are none the less satisfying for all that. One of these is reading the Sunday newspaper. Every Sunday morning, when he picks up the heavy Sunday edition, he lets out a sigh that, “when broken down, is 25% ‘another week, already over,’ 15% ‘it’s going to be a busy Sunday’ and 60% ‘but I have the Sunday edition.’” Slowly and leisurely reading the special sections and the large volume of ads has become one of his small pleasures. Indeed, “this kind of ‘small pleasure’ was very important for the Small Man and his small life.” After all, “big pleasures can be capricious, but small pleasures will never betray you.” Here, the narrator jumps in and warns us that we are not to become sentimental about the Small Man—he likes his solitary life, and it is precisely because of this solitude that he has his small pleasures.
One of his pastimes is the Lonely Heart Book Club. He decided to join when he saw a pamphlet for the group that said, “Readers all have lonely hearts” and “If you’re not lonely, you don’t need to read,” followed by, “and then life goes on.” The reading list was full of classic humorous novels such as P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves novels and Jerome K. Jerome’s “Three Men In a Boat.” Miyato, one of the members of this club and a friend of Shizuka’s, is one of the few connections between the Small Man and Shizuka in this book.
Shizuka is the owner of the quiet voice. She works for a radio station and has just been given her own show, which will be called Shizuka na koe (The Quiet Voice), a play on her name since the word for “quiet” is also “shizuka.” This two-hour radio show will be one-third music, but the rest will be filled by Shizuka’s calm voice. Her boss wants her to improvise because just listening to her voice alone is reassuring. He tells her, “We all just want some relief. You know how people put little lamps by their pillows? It’s just like that—it’s enough just to turn on the radio and hear a quiet voice.”
Shizuka is very worried about what she will talk about, and goes regularly to a restaurant near her house where the other customers’ conversations inadvertently give her ideas. This restaurant doesn’t seem to have an official name, just a sign outside that always reads “preparations currently underway.” This is a typical sign that restaurants put in front of their restaurants to indicate that they are currently prepping and will open soon, but in this case the sign is never removed, effectively turning away all but the regulars. The owner’s rationale is that customers can never complain if he is slow because, after all, he is still preparing.
The book has little plot as such, but rather a string of episodes like this. However, momentum does pick up somewhat—although we’re talking about a change equivalent to the shift from a placid lake to a trickling brook—when the Small Man begins to listen to Shizuka’s radio show, broadcast at midnight on Sunday, and hears her talk about how her younger brother (remember him?) had recently set off on a long bike trip, on a whim. The Small Man realizes that he has always wanted to be a younger brother, not the older brother that he actually is, to have that freedom to set off on long trips without a care in the world. He figures that if “little brothers are creatures that take long bike trips on a whim,” then simple math would suggest that if he were to take a long bike trip, he would gain the freedom that goes with being a little brother. And so he decides to get a bike too, which turns out to be a turning point in his life.
Wanting to collect material for her radio show, Shizuka begins writing down everything she notices around her in a bright red notebook, a color that she dislikes intensely but chose for that very reason—she reasons that the color is so bright that she will just feel it glowing in her bag and remember to record her thoughts. At night, she pulls out her notebook and reads aloud in her quiet voice, laughing at the ridiculous things she writes, sometimes not even sure what she had meant.
One typical record was of a conversation at her local restaurant. One of the regulars, Nijino, suggests that they all have a fireworks party. She dismisses the objection that it would be too expensive by explaining that what she intends to use is sparklers: “We’ll collect different kinds of sprinklers, and gaze at the tiny lights, and think about the old days and complain and laugh.” The others complain that that would be boring, but Shizuka agrees with Nijino because fireworks in the old days didn’t go “bang,” they “crackled.”
One day Shizuka tells her brother Shin that she had read about the lamplighters that used to go around the city lighting each gas lamp, and now finally understands why he likes his work making desk lamps. But Shin says that it’s actually Shizuka who is like the lamplighters.
Just as people are going to sleep, people listening to your voice flip the switch on their radios, right? All over the city. And when they flip that switch on the radio, a red light comes on, right? That red light is just like a street light for people lying awake in the dark night. So you’re the lamplighter, not me.
The last section about the Small Man describes how he buys a copy of “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” (because he’s been told it has a great scene of Paul Newman on a bike) and buys a cheeseburger for take-out. These simple things give him such a thrill that he is shaken out of his usual ways: “I’ve forgotten all about the world for so long now. …If I really want to write an encyclopedia, I have to begin paying more attention to cheeseburgers and ‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.’ Of course, I can’t forgot about hammocks and trolleys either.”
As the book draws to a close (which I dreaded), both Shizuka and the Small Man are beginning to pay more attention to the world around them, and finding themselves happier for it. The ending is perfect, and no, this is not an American rom-com. In the afterword, Kiyoshi Shigematsu writes that this book shows us our own “lonely hearts,” but this book did not make me feel lonely. Atsuhiro Yoshida is writing about the “small pleasures” of two (perhaps four, counting Shin and Miyato) people who enjoy their solitude and find recompense, in their own way, for the occasional loneliness. They were both brave in small and endearing ways.
This novel left me with images of the Small Man dancing up the stairs, people all over Tokyo listening to Shizuka with only the small red light on their radios glowing in the darkness, a man on his bike delivering desk lamps throughout the city, and an eccentric seller of poems teaching his customers to find poems in everything.